TORONTO — New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair fought to articulate his foreign-policy views on Monday as he confronted a sure-footed Conservative leader and frequently passionate Liberal counterpart.
Speaking at a debate broadcast from Toronto, Mulcair appeared at times subdued as he pressed his views on military action, Syrian refugees and other touchy topics.
Canada, he said, should withdraw from the military attacks on Islamic extremists in the Middle East because it was neither a NATO nor UN operation, but he denied the NDP is pacifist.
"We understand that there will be times when we have to, either under the NATO charter or under our international obligations at the UN, use force," Mulcair said. "We won't shy away from that."
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper fired back, arguing that while other measures were needed as well, the Islamic State could not be left to its own devices.
"It will slaughter literally millions of people," Harper countered.
The fourth of five debates ahead of the Oct. 19 vote took place before a packed Roy Thomson Hall and was the first ever during a campaign devoted to foreign-policy issues.
Mulcair criticized Harper for abdicating Canadians' traditional role as peacekeepers, saying an NDP government would restore the country's once-leading position in peacekeeping.
On the emotionally charged topic of Middle East refugees, Mulcair accused the Conservative leader of using code language to single out Muslims as posing a threat to Canada.
"Mr. Harper always has one group in mind and he tends to finger-point and objectify one particular group," Mulcair said.
"He doesn't talk about houses of worship; he specifically refers to mosques, and Muslims across Canada know how to interpret that for exactly what it is."
Harper insisted Canada was taking action to help the refugees, but said there are security risks that have to be taken into account.
"We're not chasing headlines," Harper said, prompting Mulcair to call that disrespectful.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who garnered several rounds of applause and laughs, suggested Mulcair was a hypocrite who says different things in French and English.
The NDP leader, who resorted at times to familiar talking points, called that "malarkey."
He repeated his strong opposition to Bill C-51, which expands powers for the country's security forces but, as critics charge, does not increase oversight of the agencies.
The Liberals supported the legislation, Mulcair said, reminding the audience that Trudeau's father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, once implemented the War Measures Act that suspended civil liberties in Quebec.
"Sharing information on peaceful protests? That's fair?" Mulcair said to the Liberal leader.
"Going against basic rights and freedoms? You voted for that, Mr. Trudeau. I stood on a question of principle. I am not afraid of Stephen Harper: I voted against Bill C-51."
"The threat we face today is not CSIS, it's ISIS," Harper retorted — to applause.
Mulcair did find himself in agreement with Trudeau on Canada-U.S. relations in accusing Harper of bungling the Keystone pipeline file by telling President Barack Obama that supporting the project was a "complete no-brainer."
"It's not a surprise they are saying no," Mulcair said.
Harper turned the issue back to the military mission against ISIL, saying withdrawing from it unilaterally would be far more damaging to Canada-U.S. relations.
"If you want to poison the relationship, that would be the way to do it," Harper said.
Mulcair said he would spend his time, if he became prime minister, "fighting harder for peace than for war."
He later defended his reference to Trudeau's late father, saying he was only trying to point out that the New Democrats were consistent in their opposition to measures that trample civil liberties.
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